The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Miami Dolphins in a close game. During the action, the Steelers suffered some key injuries to Aaron Smith, Flozell Adams, and LaMarr Woodley. ESPN's Adam Schefter is reporting that Aaron Smith tore his tricep. Meanwhile, LaMarr Wodley is apparently suffering from some type of problem with his hamstring and Flozell Adams appeared to sprain his left ankle.
However, around water coolers everywhere the discussion about this game will not focus on these key injuries. It will focus on a ruling by referee Gene Steratore.
On a third and goal, trailing by two with 2:37 left to play in the game, Ben Roehlisberger ran a quarterback draw out of the shotgun formation. As Roethlisberger dived for the endzone, Miami safety Chris Clemons put his helmet on the ball. The ball popped out, but it was unclear to the naked eye whether the ball had broken the plane before or after Roethlisberger lost control of it. Head linesman Jerry Bergman ruled that the ball had broken the plane of the goal line prior to Roethlisberger's fumble.
Coach Sparano of the Dolphins threw the challenge flag. After taking a long pause to review the play from every angle, Gene Steratore emerged from the replay booth to announce his ruling.
Mr. Steratore announced that the replays showed that the ball had not broken the plane. The fans at Sun Life Stadium in Miami erupted into thunderous applause and deafening cheers. As Mr. Steratore continued his explanation, the stadium grew silent.
Mr. Steratore explained that he had to review two aspects of the play. First whether the fumble occured prior to the ball breaking the plane, which it had. However, he also had to determine which team recovered the ball. As he announced that there was not conclusive proof that the Dolphins had recovered the fumble, the fans erupted into a chorus of boos.
Replays show that Miami Dolphins' defenders Ikaika Alama-Francis and Randy Starks appeared to get their hand on the ball first. However Pittsburgh Steelers offensive linemen Doug Legursky and Jonathan Scott immediately pounced on the ball in between the two defenders. Kendall Langford of the Dolphins and Ben Roethlisberger of the Steelers were also at the bottom of the resulting pile-up.
After the game, Roethlisberger claimed to have recovered his own fumble. However, he let go of the ball when the referee announced the touchdown. We will never really know what happened at the bottom of that pile.
Pittsburgh maintained possession and the ball was spotted half a yard short of the endzone. Jeff Reed kicked what proved to be the game winning field goal.
Many Dolphins' fans are understandably upset. The flames are being fueled by fans of various other NFL franchises that have developed a general distaste for the Steelers. Some fans on twitter are already linking Gene Steratore's home in Washington, PA as reason for potential bias towards the Steelers.
However, the ruling was correct under the rules. When a play is initially ruled not to be a fumble, but the replay overturns the call on the field, the offensive team retains possession of the ball at the spot of the fumble if there is not conclusive video evidence of the defensive team recovering the ball.
Detractors may claim that when the pile cleared, the ball was in the hands of a Dolphin. Unfortunately, the players getting up from the pile were told that the play resulted in a touchdown. There is no telling who really had possession of the ball at the bottom of that pile: and that's the problem.
Miami had over 2:00 on the clock to engineer a game winning drive. But they turned the ball over on downs instead. Whether one believes the officiating crew did the right thing or not, it cannot be denied that Miami had every chance to overcome the call.
Situations like this continue to show that the challenge system has flaws. However, it's the only system in place to attempt to make corrections to on-field errors. The NFL has had other replay systems in place in the past, but they had their problems as well. There is no way to get every call perfect.
The alternative is to do away with replay altogether, in which case the call on the field will stand every time.